The Inexact Science of Predicting the Future
By Mandy Marger
The year 2020 sounds like a futuristic fantasy, and many in the past have imagined what this year would hold. Lots of “unbelievable” predictions, such as automation and wearable technology, have become commonplace realities. Other predictions have been less accurate.
Thankfully, as a new decade begins, failed forecasts can only be enjoyed in our imagination or in science fiction stories. Here is a random collection of futuristic visions you may
1900: Ixnay on the C, X, Q
In 1900, Ladies’ Home Journal published a vision of the 21st century written by John Elfreth Watkins Jr., an engineer. In the article, Watkins predicted, “There will be no C, X, or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because they are unnecessary.”
While those three letters are still very much a part of our alphabet, Watkins’ prediction of communication with “condensed words expressing condensed ideas” could be argued to have come true with modern day abbreviated text language, emojis, and gifs.
1911: A One-Toed Baby in a Steel Cradle
According to a Miami Metropolis article published in 1911, Thomas Edison envisioned the house of the 21st century would be “furnished from basement to attic with steel, at a sixth of its present cost,” including steel furniture in formal dining rooms, sitting rooms, and even the nursery.
That same year, a surgeon by the name of Richard Clement Lucas delivered a lecture to the Royal College of Surgeons, in which he predicted the demise of eight of mankind’s toes. He speculated that since humans had been using their toes less and less, their outer toes would gradually disappear, and mankind would likely become a “one-toed race” in about 100 years.
1943: Does not Compute
Would this be 2020 if everyone didn’t carry computers in their back pockets? Surprisingly, techies of the past did not predict the rise in home computers and personal devices.
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” surmised Thomas Watson, president of IBM, in 1943. Of course, back in the 1940s, computers were about the size of a house and would not have fit on our desk, let alone in our pockets.
In 1977, Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corp, said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Ironically, within four years of his prediction, IBM proved him wrong.
1947: Chomp Shop
A 1947 Modern Mechanix article describes the possibility of “tooth banks,” which would operate much like blood banks. Instead of going to the dentist for artificial dentures, bridges, plates, and partial plates, patients could have real human teeth imbedded in their gums.
This vision of a “tooth bank” for dental repair has, thankfully, yet to come to fruition.
1950: Easy Cleanup
Popular Mechanics predicted that the housewife of 2000 would clean the interior of her home by hosing it down. Furniture, curtains, rugs, and floors would be made with synthetic fabric and waterproof materials. After the hose had done its job, the water would run down a concealed drain, and the housewife would dry everything with a blast of hot air.
Another interesting cleaning idea was suggested in 1955, when Alex Lewyt, president of Lewyt Vacuum Company, predicted that in 10 years we would be using nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners to clean up everyday dust.
1957: Take the Long Tube Home
Another article in Popular Mechanics touted the benefits of the 21st century’s tube road system. With asphalt streets “replaced by a network of pneumatic tubes,” Americans would only need to drive from their home to the nearest tube to beat rush hour traffic and be transported to their destination.
1959: You’ve Got Rocket Mail
In 1959, a Navy submarine used a modified rocket to send 3,000 letters to political figures including President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The letters were placed in the payload of an unarmed cruise missile. Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield was so excited by the successful delivery that he predicted “missile mail” would become commonplace.
“Mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles,” the postmaster said. “We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” Thankfully, he was proved wrong when email was developed only 12 years later.
1967: “Home Jeeves” – Your Ape Chauffeur
In 1967, The Futurist magazine ran an exclusive report from the RAND Corp. that suggested the future would hold new opportunities for apes.
RAND Corp. speculated that by the year 2020 humans might be capable of breeding intelligent animals like apes that could clean, garden, and perhaps even drive the family car. In fact, the study said, “The use of well-trained apes as family chauffeurs might decrease the number of automobile accidents.”
While these predictions failed to become facts, the true promise of 2020 lies ahead, and the brightest future has yet to be imagined. Happy New Year!
“The 7 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time” by Robert Strohmeyer, PCWorld.com/article/155984/worst_tech_predictions, December 31, 2008.
“20 Hilarious Predictions About the Year 2020 Made Long Ago” by Bob Larkin, MSN.com/en-nz/lifestyle/lifestylegeneral/20-hilarious-predictions-about-the-year-2020-made-long-ago/ss-AAIbmlR?li=BBqdb1S#image=1, June 10, 2019.
“The Future That Never Was” by Gregory Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics. PopularMechanics.com/flight/g462/future-that-never-was-next-gen-tech-concept, January 27, 2011.
“Mail Delivery by Rocket” by Kat Eschner, Smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/mail-delivery-rocket-never-took, June 8, 2017.
“Things Will Come to Pass of Which Man Little Dreams,” Miami Metropolis, June 20, 1911.